On Failure


My new favorite cartoon via lucyinnovation.wordpress.com

At a recent lecture with prominent DHer and computational historian William Turkel , he mentioned a few very eye-opening things that point to major differences between the sciences and the humanities.  Humanities students are not taught to work collaboratively. Humanities students, he said, are not taught to fail. He didn’t mean either of these things in a negative way, but rather as a matter of fact.

It’s true, but to some extent the grading system puts a damper on learning things for the sake of learning. This is nothing new. In a similar vein, it would seem that humanities students are taught that their failure is all their own. When there are less group projects, working with others  is daunting–if someone sips up, you could all fail. This puts pressure on the power of your own brain and equates an “ick” feeling to collaboration. I know when I was paired with a bunch of lazies and ended up taking over the entire project I sure felt that way. I think this feeling often lasts through adulthood, and I can’t imagine that all students in the sciences dream of the day their next group project will come. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from group collaboration, even when it’s outside of a school setting.

With Digital Humanities, collaboration can be a necessity. If you want to employ data mining techniques in relation to Jane Austen’s texts, but have no experience with data mining, well, you better find someone who can show you. In my opinion, these kinds of projects start to move into a more scientific realm than one that’s purely 18th-century literary theory. But that’s another discussion.

What Turkel said is that he encourages his students to aim for big (do-able) projects. If your hypothesis or objective “fails” in the end, that doesn’t mean that you fail the class. You are forced to try new things and work out solutions – very much like how it goes in real life.

In an essay, your thesis doesn’t “fail.” You wouldn’t write a poetry analysis that admits to its own failure or shortcomings. It’s just a difference in the disciplines. But by the nature of the grading system, an ‘A’ is a success, and anything less than that may as well mean you’ve fallen short of succeeding.

When I was a writing tutor, many of my students came from a science background and were very concerned about their grades because of graduate school.

“OK, but how do I get an ‘A’?” was a common concern. This isn’t unique to the humanities, but rather, points to a larger problem that academics have bickered over for decades.

At UC Santa Cruz,  I was fortunate enough to be able to take some classes pass/fail. I did this when I took classes that were out of my field (Astronomy, for one), and for classes where I didn’t want to be limited by grades (Creative Writing). When I took classes pass/fail, there was  less pressure riding on the outcome and I enjoyed the learning process more.  Of course, teachers would warn you that if you were applying to graduate school, you should take all of your classes for a grade and that you should definitely get A’s. But we had lengthy written evaluations by the teachers and TA’s, which should have been worth more than the grade anyway, right?

Is this why I was rejected from certain graduate programs? Because I looked like a lazy California hippie? Maybe. But I’ve found that I’m right where I need to be. In the end it all works out, no matter how many classes you have “failed” or lessons that you find you need to learn over and over again. you won’t really get it until you start graduate school anyway.